The Origins of Russia

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Europe in the 9th century
Europe in the 9th century

An important figure in the history of eastern Christianity was St. Cyril, who in the ninth century created an alphabet for the Slavic languages, now called Cyrillic and still used in many Slavic languages including Russian.  He then translated Greek liturgy into Slavonic and used it to teach and convert the inhabitants of Moravia and Bulgaria.  Monasteries sprung up, from which monks would go further into Slavic lands, ultimately tying together a swath of territory deep into what would one day be Russia.

Saints Cyril and Methodius holding the Cyrillic alphabet
Saints Cyril and Methodius holding the Cyrillic alphabet
Early Cyrillic alphabet
Early Cyrillic alphabet

The success of these missionary efforts united much of Eastern Europe and Byzantium in a common religious culture – that of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Thus, up to the present, the Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and Serbian Orthodox churches all share common historical roots and a common set of beliefs and practices.

The origins of Russia emerged out of this interaction, and out of the relationship between Byzantium and the Viking kings of the Slavs in Russia.  Originally, the “Rus” were Vikings who ruled small cities in the vast steppes and forests of western Russia and the Ukraine.

The Rus’ people originated in what is currently coastal eastern Sweden around the eighth century and that their name has the same origin as Roslagen in Sweden (with the older name being Roden). According to the prevalent theory, the name Rus’ is derived from an Old Norse term for “the men who row” as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (Rus-law) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times.

The Rus arriving in Novograd under the leadership of Rurik a Varangian (Viking)
The Rus arriving in Novograd under the leadership of Rurik a Varangian (Viking)

They were united in about 980 CE by a king, Vladimir the Great, who conquered all of the rival cities and imposed control from his capital in Kiev.  He converted to Orthodox Christianity and forbade his subjects to continue worshiping Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods.  Just as Boris of Bulgaria had a century earlier, Vladimir used conversion to legitimize his own rule, by connecting his nascent kingdom to the prestige, power, and glory of ancient Rome embodied in the Byzantine Empire.  

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Cyril: By Zahari Zograf (1810–1853) –, Public Domain,

Europe map: By Bukkia (talk · contribs) – Own work based on: Europe 814.jpg, Public Domain,

Rurik info:

Rurik: By Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov –, Public Domain,

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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